NEW DELHI — Indian police fired tear gas and resorted to baton charges to disperse thousands of violent demonstrators who were torching vehicles in New Delhi on Sunday, as protests against a new citizenship law continued for a fifth straight day across the country.
The new law enacted on Dec. 11 has stirred protests across India, but the eastern part of the country, where resentment towards Bangladeshi immigrants has persisted for decades, has been among the worst hit. Violent demonstrations in the Indian capital have been on since Friday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government says the new law will save religious minorities such as Hindus and Christians from persecution in neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan by offering them a path to Indian citizenship. But critics say the law, which does not make the same provision for Muslims, weakens India’s secular foundations.
On Sunday protesters in South Delhi, including locals and some students, torched some buses, cars and two wheelers.
A Reuters witness said police resorted to baton charges and firing tear gas on the protesters to disperse them. The half a kilometer stretch of road where the protesters had gathered was strewn with glass, stones, broken bits of bricks and overturned motorcycles.
“About 4000 people were protesting and police did what they did to disperse them when the crowd burnt buses,” said Chinmoy Biswal, a senior police officer in the area. “If it had been a peaceful mob it would have been dispersed peacefully.”
Police later in the evening stormed into the nearby Jamia Milia Islamia University campus where many protesters were believed to have fled and fired tear gas on the campus and marched some students out, while detaining others.
Many students from the storied Muslim university have been protesting against the new law since Friday, when police first used tear gas to disperse protesters.
Waseem Ahmed Khan, a senior faculty member of the university told Reuters’s partner ANI that police have entered the campus on Sunday.
“Police have entered the campus by force, no permission was given. Our staff and students are being beaten up and forced to leave the campus,” he said.
Students at the nearly 100-year old university took shelter in the library after police fired tear gas shells, said Tehreem Mirza, a student at the university.
“Police are inside the campus and have been firing shells for a while. That’s why we went to hide in the library. Then we came out, we were walking on the footpath, they told us to put our hands up….Why should we do that? We are not criminals, we are students,” said Mirza. “We saw smoke and burnt buses, but that wasn’t us. If someone did something from our community, that doesn’t mean it was us.”
Police defended their move to storm the campus saying they only entered as they were being pelted with stones from within.
“We had no intention of entering the university campus, we only want to maintain peace and order,” said Biswal.
Some injured protesters were taken to nearby hospitals and a mosque in the Jamia Milia Islamia University area, according to a Reuters witness.
Police did not say how many of the protestors were injured, but said that at least six police personnel had been wounded in the clashes.
Sunil Choudhary, deputy chief fire officer said four buses had been torched in South Delhi area and two firefighters were injured.
Separately, authorities ordered all schools in south east Delhi to remain closed on Monday, in light of the protests. The Jamia Milia university had on Saturday already declared that it was closing early for its winter break.
Meanwhile, protests against the Act continued in parts of eastern India. A highway connecting the states of West Bengal and Assam was blocked in several places on Sunday when protesters, demanding the law be scrapped, burnt tires. Violence was also reported in the eastern state of Bihar.
Internet services have been suspended in parts of West Bengal. State chief minister Mamata Banerjee in an address to the people urged for peace and warned that a “section of people are trying to take advantage of the situation and incite communal disharmony.” (Reporting by Adnan Abidi And Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi and Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata; Writing by Nidhi Verma and Euan Rocha; Editing by Pravin Char and Louise Heavens)